Rabat, Morocco — On his deathbed, the head of a major West African separatist group stunned doctors and colleagues by repudiating his nearly half-century alliance with Algeria, according to a Madrid-based news site.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, whose Polisario Front has fought the Moroccan presence in the western Sahara since the 1970s, died Tuesday of lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Abdelaziz, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of the Western Sahara, had been daily smoker for most of his life.
Before he died, Abdelaziz confided to close associates that he had realized his own beliefs had become “obsolete” and the long-simmering conflict in the region was pointless, according to the Spanish-language news site lainformacion.com.
The dying leader also regretted his alliance with Algeria and felt guilty over the conflict, according to the site.
Algeria sheltered and supported the rebel Polisario Front for decades as part of a proxy war against the neighboring kingdom of Morocco. Abdelaziz’s regrets, if true, would be a stunning turnaround for the movement and its supporters.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted the leader’s passing Wednesday afternoon and offered “condolences to Mr. Abdelaziz’s family and to the Frente Polisario as they mourn his untimely loss.”
Ban was photographed giving the victory sign with Polisario Front supporters during a visit to a refugee camp in March. He was reported to have called Morocco’s 1975 annexation of portions of Western Sahara an “occupation.”
Ban pledged “to work to help the parties to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara” in his statement Wednesday.
The territorial dispute over what is now the southern half of Morocco—which some Sahrawi tribes claim as their homeland and seek to establish as an independent state—is one of the longest running and thorniest diplomatic issues in the world today. Morocco opposed creating “Western Sahara” and offered regional autonomy and economic development instead. Algeria supported the creation of a new, independent state that would have been ruled by Abdelaziz.
Most of the Abdelaziz’ life had been spent spent in the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria—a collection of concrete and mud-brick huts scattered among the stony outcroppings in the Sahara desert—alongside the thousands of Sahrawi refugees he represented. He ruled over some 100,000 followers in a one-party state that barred alternative political parties.
Algeria provided weapons, tanks, food, passports, and millions of dollars to the Polisario Front over the last four decades. As recently as January, Abdelaziz received a written note from Algerian President Bouteflika on the 40th Anniversary of the proclamation of the Saharwi Arab Democratic Republic.
“Algeria will spare no effort to provide support to the UN Secretary General’s proposal to revive direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario,” Bouteflika wrote.
Abdelaziz waged a guerilla war against Morocco under the militant banner of the Polisario Front from 1976 until a ceasefire agreement was brokered by the United Nations on September 6, 1991. His followers called that bloody period “the years of lead.” Since then, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has monitored the ceasefire and maintains a buffer between Morocco and the Algerian-backed separatist movement.
In addition to his regrets, Abdelaziz reportedly made a surprising final request: that he be buried in Bir Lahlou, a small village in Morocco.
“This is like George Washington asking to be buried in London,” said Ahmed Charai, a Casablanca-based newspaper and radio station magnate.
Abdelaziz was reportedly born in Marrakesh, Morocco, though some Sahrawi tribal leaders maintain that he was born in 1948 in Smara, a village deep in the arid lands Western Sahara.
The separatist leader had family ties to Morocco. Abdelaziz’s father, Khalili Ben Mohamed Al-Bachir Rguibi, was a loyal member of the Royal Moroccan Army and active in Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs.
The Polisario Front has ordered a 40-day mourning period, after which the group will choose a new secretary-general in an election that is expected to have a single candidate.
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